This is currently at the beta-reader, but any additional c&c would be appreciated!
Title: Variation Part Four: Hanging
Rating: PG-13/R for violence and language
Pairings: None/Gen fic
Part One: The Isolated Pawn
Part Two: Exchange Sacrifice
Part Three: The Captured King
Part Four: Hanging
Wednesday, 10:22 pm
The demon struck, feet slamming into Kuwabara's chest and knocking him onto his back, sending his head slamming against the dirt. His breath was forced out of his lungs with a solid whoosh, and the reiken flickered as his concentration broke.
The demon landed lightly on its feet beside him, straightening smoothly and brushing off its long black coat.
Kuwabara felt a brief surge of relief, followed by a much stronger surge of annoyance. "Why aren't you dead?"
Hiei frowned at him. "Why do you smell like a sewer?"
"Shut up!" Kuwabara leveled a finger at the fire demon, willfully resisting the urge to take a swing at the arrogant little fuck instead. "What are you doing here?"
"Saving your life." Hiei sheathed his katana and stood. "I'm afraid it may have become a habit after all this time."
"Who asked you?" Kuwabara snarled irritably. He rested his arms on his knees and glared at Hiei from the ground. Now that the fight was over he really, really wanted a bath. And food. And sleep. Mostly a bath. "I thought you were dead."
"Did you grieve?" Hiei mocked him.
"I threw a fucking party. Are you going to tell me what's going on or did you plan on spending the rest of the evening staring at a bunch of dead guys?"
Hiei nudged a corpse with his foot and it burst into flame. Kuwabara scrambled to his feet as every body scattered across the schoolyard began to burn. In seconds there was nothing left of them, and the grass beneath them was unmarked. "Did you manage to get anything out of them or will I have to fill you in from the beginning?"
"You know I'm already beginning to miss thinking you were dead." Kuwabara stood, rolling his shoulder and flexing the fingers of his right hand. "I know some guy named Kingman is behind it all and – what?"
Hiei raised an eyebrow and pointed.
Kuwabara glanced down and saw the severed tongue still wrapped around his leg. "It's a long story. I asked you once already, you little bastard. Why aren't you dead? I felt you die."
Hiei froze for just a second, and leveled him with a narrow-eyed gaze. "We're going to Genkai's."
That didn't sound like a bad idea to Kuwabara, but he objected on principle anyway. "Shouldn't we be helping Kurama and Urameshi?"
Hiei was already walking away, but he paused to glance over his shoulder. "We need a plan. And unless you want to attract every demon in a thousand-mile radius, you need to bathe."
"I'm definitely missing you being dead. Just so you know."
Wednesday, 11:39 pm
The warehouse was lit by pale backup lights, the kind left on at night so that thieves (like Hiei, Kuwabara thought nastily) could see what they were stealing and didn't have to worry about juggling a flashlight and lockpicks.
This particular warehouse also had the added illumination of a dimensional gate.
The gate was an unremarkable little patch of blue swirly light hovering in the air at about chest height. It was large enough for the six-armed wolfman to have come through, although it must have been a tight fit. Hiei and Kuwabara had tracked it down to an empty building in the middle of downtown, and Genkai was incredibly annoyed with herself for never having known it was here. Not that she said anything, but Kuwabara had plenty of experience at seeing Genkai annoyed about something, and he could recognize the expression at a thousand paces.
"It probably wasn't here until recently," Hiei said, breaking his broody silence for the first time since they'd left the temple.
Well, that got everyone's attention, Kuwabara reflected as he and Genkai both snapped their heads around to stare at the fire demon. "Gates don't just form out of nowhere," he said.
"It's not a real gate." Hiei sounded bored. "No wards, no stabilizing spells, no power source. This is a tear in the dimensional barrier, nothing more."
"What? Like Itsuki did?" Kuwabara caught himself before he could summon the reiken, but couldn't help glancing over his shoulder.
Genkai crossed her arms and studied the tear thoughtfully. "This demon you spoke of, the one who called herself the Queen – you think she's powerful enough to have done this?"
Kuwabara rolled his eyes. "That's very helpful. Thanks."
"She was a Weaver, you said?" Genkai asked, ignoring him.
"That's what they call themselves." Hiei's voice indicated that there were other things they were called. "They manipulate threads of reality. Most of them are little more than glorified illusionists, bending light and sound to their will. Some can manipulate thoughts or emotions, following psychic threads."
"Is that what happened when I thought you were dead?" Kuwabara demanded. "She got inside your head?"
"And yours," Genkai said while Hiei pretended he didn't know what Kuwabara was talking about. "Once she knew Hiei was a Jaganshi she must have realized she could use his connection to you as a weapon."
"We are not connected," Hiei and Kuwabara said and glared at each other.
"It is possible," Hiei said coldly, "that there are some of these Weavers powerful enough to manipulate the dimensional barrier."
A quirked eyebrow was her only reaction. "I take it this is not a usual trait of the race."
Hiei snorted. "The Spirit World would not tolerate a being with that sort of ability for long."
Genkai crossed her arms and studied the pseudo-gate with a dark look not dissimilar to the one she used whenever someone forgot to take their shoes off before entering the temple or when she caught Urameshi raiding her fridge at three in the morning.
She hadn't been surprised to see them arrive at the temple, although she did make Kuwabara undress and hose off in the yard before she let him inside. She'd already known something was happening, since a horde of demons duking it out with one of her students less than a mile from her temple wasn't the sort of thing Genkai missed. They'd briefed her on the specifics, including their suspicion that Kurama and Yuusuke were already a lost cause, then they'd come hunting for the gate Kuwabara had sensed.
Someone was waiting for them on the far side. Kuwabara couldn't sense any youki – not through a gate, he wasn't even sure that was possible – but there was a sensation like spiders crawling under his skin that usually meant someone with some nasty intentions was ahead of him. Hiei knew it as well, although the fire demon tended to be a little paranoid on the best of days. The grim anticipation Kuwabara could see in his eyes was probably just another indication of mental illness.
Uh-oh, now he was getting the Glare. He prodded his mental shields just to make certain that last thought hadn't leaked out. No. Probably Hiei was just being cranky for the hell of it. Well, he knew how to deal with that.
Kuwabara glared back.
"Stop acting like idiots." Genkai's gravelly voice sounded out of thin air somewhere behind him, and Kuwabara fought the urge to jump six inches into the air like a frightened cat. He lost.
Hiei gave him a disdainful glance, obviously declaring himself the winner. Kuwabara considered flipping him off, but that would mean acknowledging him.
The two of us are about to launch an invasion of a demonic stronghold, which is in another world and guarded by at least two powerful demons and their minions. All this with no backup and without our usual team. Kuwabara had the sudden realization that he really did not want Hiei to be the last person he saw before he died. Maybe one of the bad guys will wander in front of my line of vision.
The gate was surprisingly undefended from this side. Kuwabara had expected at least a couple of minions to be guarding it, especially if the Kingman was using it to send troops through (which he was, there were lingering trails of youki hanging in the air and dripping down the walls), but there was no sign that anyone had remained. Maybe they'd all been caught up in the horde that had come after him earlier.
Or maybe it was a trap.
The bunch that had come after him hadn't been that smart, but Hiei's story indicated there were more powerful demons involved than the pack of animalistic D-class minions who'd come after him. If nothing else, the fact that they'd taken down Kurama was a pretty good sign that someone on the other end of this attack probably had at least a few brain cells to rub together.
And minions, he thought darkly. Let's not forget the minions.
Genkai faced the gate, legs straight, hands clasped behind her back. "I don't suppose either one of you will live through this. At least try to take them out with you." She raised an eyebrow and glared meaningfully at the gateway. "I'm missing my show. Are we done?"
Kuwabara sighed. But then, considering what kind of people he had on his side, the demons and minions were probably not his biggest problem.
Then Genkai kicked him through the gate.
Wednesday 11:48 pm
The gateway was crudely formed at best, Kuwabara decided in the part of his mind that wasn't contemplating his own imminent demise. Obviously not as well-formed as the ones the Reikai used or even the carefully crafted breach Sensui, in all his wacky insanity, had had Itsuki create in order to bring hell to earth.
The first few times he'd ventured into the Makai had been courtesy of the
Reikai, either on Koenma's orders or with his knowledge, and the gates used in those instances had dropped them into the demon world almost instantly. Sensui's portal had been different, had required actual travel across the distance from the point of breach to the barrier and then through the barrier and into the Makai.
This was like falling out a window and into a lightning storm.
This was something else entirely, and as Kuwabara tried to twist himself right-side up he decided he didn't care for it. Energy discharge from the ragged edges of reality crawled across his skin, and all in all it felt a lot like being dragged backwards through an electrified rosebush.
Then he was out and falling for real, because the gate happened to be about four meters off the ground.
A frantic mid-air summersault let him hit the ground with his feet instead of his head, but he overbalanced and ended up on one knee. And four meters wasn't that high, so maybe the gateway had added some velocity or something because that really hurt.
He rubbed his knee and winced while Hiei minced about on a tree somewhere to his left.
"If you think you can stay upright," the fire demon began.
"Oh, bite me."
"I didn't know humans did that," Hiei said.
Kuwabara shot him as nasty look as he could manage and scanned their surroundings. They were on the edge of the demon world equivalent of a swamp (just like a human world swamp, only with man-eating trees and leeches the size of your head), near the foot of a mountain and the geography made his mind boggle slightly, but whatever. If he concentrated, he could make out several youki signatures deep inside the mountain. Kurama was there, but something was strange about him, almost like... a net? Only not.
And then his concentration shifted slightly, to the youki approaching them.
"We're under attack!" And maybe it was less a manly warning than a startled yelp, but hey, at least he'd sensed them before Hiei.
"I know," Hiei said calmly. He'd already drawn his katana without Kuwabara noticing, and had dropped to the ground at some point. "I was starting to warn you when you invited me to bite you."
"Trust me, Hiei," Kuwabara said through gritted teeth. "That was not an invitation."
The demon that appeared from the edge of the swamp was tall, easily half again as tall as Kuwabara himself. Spindly arms with three elbows hung limply at its sides, while legs that bent backwards moved forward in slow, staggering steps. The demon's head lolled sickeningly on its neck, lips parted and eyes blank.
Hiei made a disgusted sound. "I've faced that one before. She called him Bishop. I'm sure I killed him."
"So what we have here is a zombie demon?" There were probably words to describe just how incredibly horrifying that concept was, but Kuwabara was too busy freaking out to think of them.
Hiei's Jagan flared as he pulled aside the wardings, bright purple light that washed over his face and made him look even more evil than he already did. Kuwabara risked a sideways glance at him, since Bishop seemed to be taking his time. The third eye was wide and a vivid violet, smaller than his real eyes, but rounder. It almost made him look younger, if such a thing was even possible.
"He's covered in enchantments," Hiei said. "There is something wrong with this situation."
"Yeah," Kuwabara said. "The enchanted dead guy would be my guess. Unless you meant the stink; I could go either way."
Bishop finally seemed to notice they were there. Its head still swayed and bobbed with each lurching step, but its eyes had suddenly gained a spark of life and zeroed in on Kuwabara. The demon gurgled, a sick, watery sound that seemed to come straight from its lungs.
Kuwabara snapped his fingers and was rewarded with the warm spark of the reiken. He wrapped his fist around it, feeling the energy cycle back and forth from the sword to his flesh. "Out of curiosity, what can this guy do?"
"I don't know," Hiei said, still regarding the demon with a narrow-eyed glare. "I killed him before he could try anything last time."
"If it makes you feel better, he's probably the weakest of our opponents."
"Even better," Kuwabara said dryly. "He came back from the dead and he's the weakest of our opponents."
Hiei snorted dismissively and sheathed his sword long enough to retie the Jagan's wards. "This won't be a problem. You can wait here if you're worried."
Kuwabara sputtered. "Hey! Wait a-" A flicker of youki was all the warning he had before Hiei moved, and Kuwabara dodged to the side as the demon flew past, moving fast enough to be nothing more than a blur of black and white.
"Okay. Fine." Kuwabara planted one hand on his hip and glared up the hill. "You go ahead and deal with the minor threat. I'll just be over here conserving my strength for the real enemy."
Bishop staggered as Hiei's katana sliced across its chest, its head flopping backwards. Hiei flickered back into sight, weapon clenched in one fist and an odd expression on his face. Kuwabara frowned as Bishop's head straightened and the demon stepped forward again.
There was no mark. Hiei's strike hadn't caused any damage. Kuwabara regarded the long-legged demon with a renewed sense of wariness. Hiei may have been a complete asshole, but he knew more about cutting people in half than Kurama did about plants.
Hiei turned to attack again, katana flashing. Bishop blocked the attack, one arm held up right, the blade striking against a bony forearm. The blade struck with a scraping sound of metal against metal and Hiei jumped back without making a mark on his opponent.
Bishop ignored him and continued its slow advance, feet dragging in the dirt. There was something inexorable about the demon's advance, as if it was on a mission.
Kuwabra glanced over his shoulder, realization making the hair on the back of his neck stand on end. "He's trying to get through the gate!" He shouted a warning to Hiei, positioning himself before the demon.
Except he really wasn't a demon anymore, just an animated corpse with only the barest trace of what it had once been. There was only a bare trace of youki, slick and stagnant beneath something sweeter that Kuwabara could barely sense, and which must be the enchantments Hiei had mentioned. He focused his sixth sense, scouring the aura around the creature, finding more of that energy strangely... sticky. Like a spiderweb.
"What?" Hiei's response was a barely discernable snarl of frustration – undoubtedly he was annoyed that this weakest opponent hadn't had the good grace to give up and die like a good little minion.
"These Weavers – are they like spiders?"
Wow, thought Kuwabara. If contempt were cash, I'd be rolling in it. "Their enchantments, short stuff. Do their enchantments feel like spider webs? Sticky? Web-shaped?"
"That is the stupidest-" Hiei paused. "A little."
Bishop's advance was taking him directly toward Kuwabara, though his pace was so lethargic that Kuwabara couldn't imagine he'd be able to manage the four-meter leap up to the gate.
He let the demon get a few steps closer, then stabbed forward with the reiken, focusing on the blade and extending it. The spirit sword pierced the demon's shoulder, severing the same lanky arm that had withstood the blade of Hiei's katana.
Oh, he was so going to rub that in if they lived through this.
"Looks like this thing's not impervious to spiritual energy," Kuwabara said smugly.
No blood flowed from the wound, but that probably wasn't surprising, since it was dead and all. Bishop didn't seem upset by the loss of its limb, or even aware of it. The demon just took a few more lurching steps toward him.
Kuwabara dove forward, ducking under Bishop's remaining arm – and when was the last time an opponent was actually taller than him, anyway? Byakko? No, no, Yakumo at least – and drove the reiken up and inward, piercing the demon's chest and exploding out its back. He shoved, dragging the reiken up, slicing through bone and flesh and leaving a gaping, ragged would more than a foot long through the creature's torso. Kuwabara pulled the reiken free and dodged to the side, slicing through the demon's neck.
Bishop's head hit the dirt with a heavy thud. Then the rest of him took another step toward Kuwabara.
"What the-" Kuwabara backpedaled to avoid a blow. "It's supposed to die when I do that!"
"You can't kill it, idiot!" Hiei said from somewhere behind Bishop. "It's already dead."
"Well, if you have a brilliant idea, now would be the time!" Kuwabara snapped back, parrying another blow. Bishop slammed its remaining arm against the reiken, slicing through its own flesh. "This is sick."
He felt the surge of Hiei's youki just in time to fling himself backward before Bishop burst into flame. He landed heavily on his back, unharmed except for his dignity because really, that was graceful. "Thanks for the warning, Hiei."
What was left of Bishop jerked and collapsed, Hiei's demon fire destroying the flesh and bone construct. Youki sparked inside the flames, the strands of enchantment breaking as the body they were affixed to was destroyed. The flame burnt itself out in minutes, not so much as ashes remaining of Bishop.
"That," Hiei said, "is my brilliant idea."
"Yeah, yeah. 'Oh, let's set it on fire'. That's your answer to everything, isn't it?" Kuwabara pushed himself up off the ground, wiping dirt off his jeans. "It's slightly more creative than 'hit it till it dies,' I'll give you that." He used his sixth sense to prod at the space where Bishop had been, ascertaining for himself that there remained no trace of youki. Bishop was gone totally, and the sticky-sweet feel of the enchantments was fading.
Slipping away. Kuwabara held out a tentative hand, ignoring the annoyed look Hiei was giving him – with the Jagan, Hiei would certainly have known if anything dangerous were lingering behind. Kuwabara's sixth sense was good only for the barest impression of what these enchantments had been, ghost-like touches and sensations, whereas Hiei had been able to see each individual 'thread' clearly.
Regardless, he paused, testing the air where Bishop had stood. He could almost feel the strands of the web lingering behind, slipping over his hand as they vanished.
"Threads, huh?" Kuwabara asked. "I still say it feels like spiderwebs."
Hiei frowned. "Semantics."
"Maybe. Webs have... connotations."
"Are you scared of spiders?" Hiei smirked.
Kuwabara felt the last few strands slip over his hands, clinging gently but not pulling at him – though he had no doubt they could if he had been their focus. The strands slid away, rejoining something else, becoming part of another enchantment. Weaving into another spiderweb.
"Nets," he murmured.
Power flared at the edge of the swamp, cloying and thick. Even warded, Hiei sensed it, his eyes widening as he turned to face the flare of power.
"Nets," Kuwabara said again. "Or webs, or whatever. When I sensed Yuusuke and Kurama earlier, it was like someone had dropped nets of youki over them."
"As with Bishop?" Hiei asked.
"No," Kuwabara said.
Kurama stepped out of the swamp, in full youko form. Silver hair and skin, the nearly transparent silk tunic, and the ethereal golden eyes made him look less like a demon and more like a spirit. He stepped forward with the same deliberate movements that Bishop had, though Kurama did not jerk and falter.
"Worse," Kuwabara added, and he managed to get a kekkai up around them just as Kurama attacked.
to be continued in: The King's Bishop